The Bookworm Critique
"The Last Open Road"
By Burt Levy;
Published by St. Martins Press.
by Mark Glendenning,

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As is the case with beer, coffee, chocolate, and all of life's other pleasant diversions, books about motor racing tend to vary greatly in quality. It doesn't matter whether you're looking for technical books, biographies, or team histories - some titles are invariably going to fall well short of the mark, while others are going to exceed all expectations.

As far as motorsport goes though, the greatest literary minefield would have to be fiction. Generally speaking, most motor racing novels just do not seem to work. There could be any number of reasons for this, but I have my own theory. This is it: Motor racing is dramatic. Would-be-novelists watch a race, absorb all the action, the psychological sparring, and the political games that take place both on and off the circuit, and they say to themselves 'Hey, that would make a great story'. And they're right. It does. That's why motor racing is so popular. And this, at least where motorsport fiction is concerned, is the whole problem - rarely can a dramatic fictional story compete with a dramatic real-life story; particularly when the audience has developed a particular empathy with the main players in the event. In other words, a down-to-the-wire Championship battle between Hakkinen and Schumacher will always attract more interest than a showdown between Bill and Tim, stars of 'Jimbob's Very Cool Motor Racing Book'. No matter how good a writer Jimbob may be, there's an excellent chance that those who live and breathe the real thing will find a fictional version to be a very poor substitute.

Very occasionally though, somebody manages to come close to achieving the impossible in creating a novel that has the potential to appeal to almost anybody, irrespective of where in the wide world of motorsport their particular interests may lie. It looks like Burt Levy may be one of those people. Levy's first novel, 'The Last Open Road', represents what is probably the best fictional motorsport writing I have ever encountered. Set in the 1950s, the story traces the adventures of Buddy Palumbo, a young mechanic who manages to progress from being the bottom of the food chain in a small local repair shop to traveling the length and breadth of the USA as a race mechanic.

If anybody were qualified to come up with a story based around such a premise, Levy would have to be the guy. Prior to writing the book, the author experienced life as a mechanic, car salesman, and motoring journalist, all on top of a respectable career as an amateur racer. Levy's knowledge and passion for American sports cars of the era is obvious throughout the book, and the easy familiarity with which he talks about them contributes a great deal to the success of the story as a whole. There is quite a bit of technical information about some of the cars throughout the pages, yet it is woven into the rest of the text in such as way that it will interest those with a passion for that aspect of 1950s cars, without ostracizing or intimidating those who are a little less knowledgeable.

This quality is actually a major feature of the book as a whole. While there are a series of sub-plots running throughout the story (such as the obligatory love interest), there is little doubting the racing element the heart of the whole thing. And yet the tale is presented in such a way that you wouldn't necessarily need any particular knowledge or even an interest in cars or racing to enjoy reading it.

The best part of this book though, is that it's simply a hell of a lot of fun. It moves fast, it's funny, and it's nostalgic without being overtly so. Levy seems to work from the popular premise that this era represented the 'Golden Age' of racing; a time when courage and honour were valued more highly than non-performance-related contracts and getting the right company to buy space for their logo on your cap. Not having been around for the 1950s, I can't say how accurately the mood of the times are captured in 'The Last Open Road'; but if it does edge toward the line between realism and romanticism, there are more than enough solid, accurate details relating to all aspects of the racing world to prevent the whole story from floating off into fairyland.

Certain aspects of the book are a little exaggerated, particularly the ways in which the British characters are portrayed, (all of them have very, very English names, and most of them speak like folk from Dickens novels); yet this somehow contributes to the overall atmosphere of the book in a positive way. Stylistically, 'The Last Open Road' reads in a manner rather reminiscent of some of the better-known American novels from the era in which the story is set. Given that the mid-1900s was a pretty good time for American literature, Levy certainly picked some good footsteps in which to tread.

This book will appeal to almost everyone. It combines real racing information with pure fantasy and escapism in just the right amounts, and the result is a really enjoyable read. It doesn't matter how small or great your interest in sports car racing or historic racing may be - at risk of completely destroying any integrity I have by dragging out the oldest and most tired of clichés, this book really does have something for everybody. Incidentally, there's also a rather neat story behind the book's origins, which anybody who is interested can read about by visiting I'd recommend 'The Last Open Road' without any hesitation.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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